This worn and well-aged painting was created in the 16th century by an unidentified artist. Inspiration for this artwork came from the poem, Gerusalemme liberata (or The Liberation of Jerusalem), written by Torquato Tasso (c. 1544-1595). Although, at first glance of the title, the poem seems like it would have been a verse account of the First Crusade (c. 1095/1096-1099), it was actually anything but a historical record. Instead of history, Tasso’s poem better resembled mythologized and folklorized epics such as the Iliad and the Aeneid. Instead of Greeks besieging Troy, with the Olympian gods intervening on both sides, Torquato Tasso recast the story, exchanging the Greeks with Crusaders and swapping out Troy with Jerusalem. Instead of Olympian or Capitoline gods intervening in human affairs, it is now God and the Devil, with their respective armies of angels and demons, who influence the war. Besides demons, Tasso also livened up his tale with wizards, witches, and a varied host of monsters and supernatural beings.
Characters in Torquato Tasso’s poem are tricky—the cast is a mixture of purely fictional characters and some historical figures, placed together in a largely unhistorical plot, which happens to be set at the time of the First Crusade. In the painting above, the depicted figures are among the purely fictional characters that were invented by Torquato Tasso to spice up the literature. The man lying at the bottom-left section of the painting is the character, Rinaldo—a crusader who went into self-exile from the crusader army after murdering a fellow warrior. Standing above him is a powerful witch named Armida, who had been preying on the crusader army, using magic and charm to lure crusaders away from the siege of Jerusalem. As the fictional tale tells it, Rinaldo (playing the role of the wandering knight errant) had freed some of Armida’s crusader captives, slaying a few of Armida’s henchmen in the process. The deaths of her goons outraged Armida, and she threw herself into a quest of vengeance against Rinaldo. Her pursuit of the wandering crusader culminated in the odd scene featured in the painting above. Armida successfully lured Rinaldo into a trap (using a magically summoned nymph), and when she finally had her target in her grasp, she discovered her resulting emotions to be quite strange. Instead of hating and loathing the helpless crusader, she fell in love. Torquato Tasso narrated the scene in his poem:
“[Rinaldo] heard, and thither turned his sight,
And tumbling in the troubled stream took keep
How the strong waves together rush and fight,
Whence first he saw, with golden tresses, peep
The rising visage of a virgin bright,
And then her neck, her breasts, and all, as low
As he for shame could see, or she could show.
So in the twilight does sometimes appear
A nymph, a goddess, or a fairy queen,
And though no siren but a sprite this were
Yet by her beauty seemed it she had been
One of those sisters false which haunted near
The Tyrrhene shores and kept those waters sheen,
Like theirs her face, her voice was, and her sound,
Thus sung the spirit false, and stealing sleep,
To which her tunes enticed his heavy eyes,
By step and step did on his senses creep,
Still every limb therein unmoved lies,
Not thunders loud could from this slumber deep,
Of quiet death true image, make him rise:
Then from her ambush forth Armida start,
Swearing revenge, and threatening torments smart.
But when she looked on his face awhile,
And saw how sweet he breathed, how still he lay,
How his fair eyes though closed seemed to smile,
At first she stayed, astound with great dismay,
Then sat her down, so love can art beguile,
And as she sat and looked, fled fast away
(Torquato Tasso, Gerusalemme liberata, Canto 14, stanzas 60-66)
Such is the scene that inspired the painting featured above. The summoned wraith of the siren or nymph that caused Rinaldo to fall into his slumber can be seen still lingering in the river that runs through the background of the painting. In the forefront, however, are the two main characters of this episode—Rinaldo and Armida. Armida is seen at the precise moment when she became completely smitten with her prey. Instead of executing the crusader, love-struck Armida decided to magically transport Rinaldo to her mythical-beast-defended lair on the so-called Fortunate Isles.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Liberation of Jerusalem by Torquato Tasso and translated by Max Wickert. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
- [Edward Fairfax (c. 1560-1635) translation of Tasso] https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/392/pg392.html